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The Lawyers’ Committee’s Deep and Continuing Commitment to Disaster Assistance for Low Income and Minority Households on the Gulf Coast

August 27, 2015

Joe Rich

Co-Director for the Fair Housing and Community Development Project

INTRODUCTION

As the nation observes the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the Lawyers’ Committee is taking this occasion to highlight its deep and continuing commitment to disaster relief on the Gulf Coast and to discuss ongoing efforts to ensure civil rights issues are addressed during future disaster recovery efforts.  Immediately after Hurricane Katrina made landfall on August 29, 2005, it became apparent that as devastating as the storm was for all residents of the Gulf Coast, the impact of the storm fell disproportionately on low income and minority households in both Louisiana and Mississippi.   The Lawyers’ Committee was quick to react to the desperate need for help.  Two weeks after the storm in mid-September 2005, we established the Disaster Survivors Legal Assistance Initiative, a program designed to provide basic legal assistance to victims of the storm and to address the lack of affordable housing and discriminatory housing-related actions that violate civil rights laws.

Through this program, the Lawyers’ Committee emerged as the leading national civil rights organization to provide legal assistance to victims of the storm. In Mississippi, we immediately joined forces with our Mississippi affiliate – the Mississippi Center for Justice (MCJ) – and in Louisiana, we formed a close partnership with the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center (GNOFHAC) in December 2005.  Our work has continued with these partners and many others without interruption to the present day.  The number and value of hours of pro bono work contributed to this effort by participating law firms reflect the resources that the Lawyers; Committee has been able to provide.  Since 2005 law firms have contributed almost 38,000 hours of time valued at $16.7 million to disaster assistance work for low income and minority households to this work.

2005-2010

On the fifth anniversary of the storm in August 2010, we released a report entitled Five Years of Commitment: Providing Legal Assistance in The Gulf Post Katrina, which described in detail the extensive work performed up until then.  The report may be found at https://lawyerscommittee.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Katrina-Report-August-2-2010-Version.pdf.  The report describes the extraordinary scope and depth of our disaster assistance program during that period.  It included: (1) immediately organizing numerous clinics manned by Lawyers’ Committee and MCJ personnel designed to provide immediate assistance to help victims of the storm navigate a  FEMA program that was dysfunctional, which is described in detail in a law review article by two Lawyers’ Committee attorneys who led our recovery efforts, Jonathan P. Hooks and Trisha B. Miller, The Continuing Storm: How Disaster Recovery Excludes Those Most in Need, 43 California Western Law Review 21 (Fall 2006); (2) compiling an informational brochure giving basic information on how to navigate the FEMA assistance program and where else to find hurricane relief; (3) legal action on behalf of low income renters who were being illegally evicted from their units; (4) legal assistance to thousands of victims appealing denial of denial of FEMA assistance; (5) legal assistance to low income families to  establish title to their homes making them eligible for federal assistance; (6) attacking discriminatory housing advertising in New Orleans through a partnership with both the GNOFHAC and the National Fair Housing Alliance (which was also a major participant in disaster assistance in Louisiana, including successfully challenging discriminatory aspects of the Louisiana Road Home Homeowner Assistance Program in Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center and National Fair Housing Alliance v. HUD) ; (7) protecting public housing tenants in New Orleans and Gulfport; and (8) documenting the environmental devastation on low income households through the creation of the National Commission on Environmental Justice on the Gulf Coast which issued a report in 2008 entitled Protecting Vulnerable Coastal Communities: Immediate Political Action and Strategies for Environmental Justice Advocacy Two Years After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which can be found at https://www.lawyerscommittee.org/publications/protecting-vulnerable-coastal-communities-meaningful-political-action-and-strategies-for-environmental-justice-after-hurricanes-katrina-and-rita.

Most significant were three groundbreaking lawsuits that the Lawyers’ Committee initiated with its partners, all of which have had very successful outcomes: (1) McWaters v. FEMA in 2005, the first and most successful lawsuit against FEMA for its failures to provide emergency assistance right after the hurricane; (2) Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center v. St., Bernard Parish in 2006, successfully attacked a blatantly discriminatory exclusionary zoning action of the Parish to obstruct African Americans from coming into the Parish after the hurricane, and which grew into one of the most important fair housing cases in recent years; and (3) Mississippi Chapter, NAACP v. HUD in 2008,  a challenge to Mississippi’s efforts to divert $570 million of its federal disaster relief funds from housing recovery to expanding the Port of Gulfport, which resulted in a 2010 settlement that created an $186 million Neighborhood Home Program that has funded repairs, reconstruction, and other direct housing assistance for over 5,100 low and moderate income homeowners.

 

2010-2015

 

Since 2010, the Lawyers’ Committee’s Gulf Coast work has continued unabated to the present funded primarily by a generous three year grant from the Norflet Cy Pres Fund.  This work includes 20 separate matters on the Gulf Coast, and engaging 18 client organizations located in Gulfport and New Orleans in collaboration with more than 25 partners and co-counsel that include local and national law firms, universities, consultants or nonprofit organizations.

 

In Gulfport, the work has been accomplished through a continued close collaboration with the MCJ.  The focus has been on representation of the Steps Coalition, a local grassroots organization formed with assistance of the Lawyers’ Committee and MCJ in 2010 to protect the rights and interests of low and moderate income residents on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  Steps is most concerned with ensuring that as plans for the expansion Port of Gulfport progress, the job creation and job training requirements of the federal disaster assistance program for low and moderate income people are met, and that environmental impacts from the Port project do not fall disproportionately on communities of color.  This work has exposed serious reporting and compliance problems with job creation requirements and through advocacy to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), oversight and accountability for job creation by HUD has improved.  To ensure that the State and the Port adhere to environmental requirements and preserve environmental quality in African-American communities, there has been significant advocacy to the Army Corps of Engineers as it processes applications for environmental permits needed for the Port expansion and projects related to this expansion such as the proposed building of a road that adversely impacts the predominantly African American community of North Gulfport, and for a major commercial development which adversely affects the historical African-American community of Turkey Creek, which was recently featured in an award winning documentary “Come Hell or High Water.”

 

Since 2010 work in New Orleans has been designed to provide legal services to community organizations to help the city recover from the ravages Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.  These organizations are fighting persistent racial disparities in income, poverty, and housing cost burden; residential segregation; and the concentration of subsidized housing in predominantly African American neighborhoods. They are addressing these issues through: (1) policy advocacy to advance fair and affordable housing, tenants’ rights, and workers’ rights; and (2) transactional legal and capacity-building assistance to nonprofit and community-based organizations. Community.

 

Lawyers’ Committee assistance to these organizations has helped them address a wide variety of local issues including (1) implementing a title-clearing project to assist New Orleans residents still unable to access CDBG and other federal rebuilding grants because of clouded home titles; (2) advocating the City Planning Commission (CPC) to adopt zoning policies that would affirmatively further fair housing, resulting in a new Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance (CZO) that includes incentives and requirements for the inclusion of affordable housing in private development and a robust policy for processing reasonable accommodations requests; (3) preparing a white paper on the Housing Authority of New Orleans’s (HANO) transition from federal receivership back to local control; (4) policy research and advocacy to push the New Orleans City Council to adopt greater protections for tenants in its housing code and to enforce the housing code at occupied rental properties as part of its blight strategy; (5) policy research for best practices for landlord-tenant law as part of advocacy to update Louisiana landlord-tenant laws which presently leaves tenants vulnerable to evictions, retaliation, and other abuses; (6) transactional legal assistance and capacity-building support to ten community-based organizations serving African-American communities in New Orleans that are involved in empowering and organizing tenants, fighting blight and vacancy, developing new models for affordable housing; recruiting small businesses to create jobs and opportunity; and increasing access to healthy food; (7) assisting a community organization in developing a community land trust to preserve and expand affordable housing in the Mid-City neighborhood of New Orleans; and (8) drafting articles of incorporation for a New Orleans based collaborative that promotes educational opportunities for adult learners throughout Louisiana.

 

ACTIVITIES GOING FORWARD

 

After Hurricane Katrina, other major storms have had disastrous impacts on communities of color in two other areas of the country – Hurricanes Ike and Dolly in Texas in 2008 and Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey and New York in 2012.  In Texas, the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service and Texas Appleseed have worked tirelessly on behalf of low income and minority victims of these storms.  Central to their work was a fair housing complaint to HUD which resulted in a comprehensive and groundbreaking agreement requiring broad civil rights elements to the disaster relief plan related to the extensive federal financial assistance for recovery.  In New Jersey, the Fair Share Housing Center has provided extraordinary leadership in addressing the failure of initial plans of the State to provide assistance to low income and minority households.  It too filed a fair housing complaint with HUD resulting an equally comprehensive recovery plan that included major civil rights requirements to ensure these households received fair and adequate federal assistance.

 

The disaster assistance work of civil rights organizations in these disasters has been recognized by the federal government.  Earlier this year, Fair Share Housing, Texas Appleseed, the National Fair Housing Alliance and the Lawyers’ Committee began discussions with the Department of Justice (DOJ) about providing disaster recovery guidance to federal, state and local government agencies and private actors.  Noting that the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina was a particularly important time to discuss the incorporation and enforcement of fair housing and civil rights laws in the implementation of disaster recovery, these organizations provided DOJ extensive materials reflecting their disaster recovery experiences and the type of recurring violations of civil rights laws that victims of disasters have suffered.  Concrete components of existing federal disaster recovery programs that require attention and improvement were identified. These discussions continue and now include FEMA, HUD and the Department of Health and Human Services.  Presently, DOJ is working to draft such guidance and when completed it will be of great importance to future disaster recovery programs.  The Lawyers’ Committee is not only advocating for such guidance, but is continuing its disaster recovery work on the Gulf Coast.

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